Jim Roddey, Business Executive and Community Leader
I was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1933, when the city was still pretty small, and lived with my parents in a little house at the foot of a mountain. My father was the comptroller for the city but, more importantly, he was a passionate ham radio operator, and a lover of electronics—and flying.
When I was little, my dad and a buddy built an airplane all by themselves. They didn’t know how to fly, but they built the plane anyway, flew it, and crashed. One time, my parents took me to an air show where a “little person” was flying a Piper Cub and taking people up for rides. When my mother wasn’t looking, my dad put me in that plane and off we went. It was wonderful.
My dad was in the U.S. Navy Reserve and had gone to Wofford College in South Carolina, a good but very small school. After graduating, he was fortunate enough to land a good job and, since he didn’t believe in his wife working, my mom became a homemaker. I was an only child.
As a family, we didn’t have a lot, but we did have a car, and we’d go riding every weekend in the mountains. We had relatives in Gaffney, South Carolina, and we’d often go and visit them, too. We had a good life. Then, suddenly, everything was turned upside down. On December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, my dad was ordered to report for active duty the very next day and was sent to be trained to work with a new technology called “radar.”
When my dad went off to war, my mom thought that we should try to be wherever my dad was. He was sent to Texas A&M for radar training, and we lived nearby, in Bryan, Texas. Then we moved to Corpus Christi for my dad’s flight training. Before long, he was assigned to an aircraft carrier that was docked in Miami, so we moved there. But when his ship was sent to North Africa, my mom and I stayed in Miami, and that was it for our travels, temporarily anyway.
Business executive and community leader
- St. Barnabas Health System, Special Assistant to the President (2016–present)
- Baker Tilly LLC, Firm Director (2012–2016)
- Parente Beard LLC, Senior Advisor (2009–2012)
- McCrory McDowell LLC, Senior Consultant (2006–2009)
- Republican Committee of Allegheny County, Chairman (2006–2016)
- Allegheny County Chief Executive (2000–2004)
- The Hawthorn Group, Partner (1984–2006)
- Allegheny Media, Managing Partner (1978–1984)
- Turner Communications, Inc., President/COO (1968–1971)
- Rollins, Inc. (1958–1968, 1971–1978)
- United States Marine Corps, Captain (1955–1958)
- Texas Christian University, B.A., Speech and English (1955)
My dad’s ship, the USS Suwannee, was a tiny aircraft carrier that was originally intended to be an oil tanker. It docked in Alameda, California. Before long, my dad sailed away to the South Pacific, where his squadron was the first to land on Guadalcanal, and we didn’t see him again for a couple of years. We stayed on in Alameda, where my mom met some people who had a home in Mendocino. They said, “Why don’t you come and live with us? We have a beautiful place.” It was 40 acres on the Pacific Ocean, and the property went right down to the water. A stream ran through it and made a little pond down by the rocks that you could sit in, like a bathtub. It was also home to some magnificent redwoods.
In Mendocino, I went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. By then, I was in the fifth grade. But my mom and the family we were living with had an argument of some sort and, suddenly, we moved to Santa Rosa. There, I would attend my eighth school in six years, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It seems that all of our moving left me with no fear of change. If I had to live somewhere new, it was fine. To this day, my favorite place to live is the place I’m living at the moment.
Wherever I went, I would make friends easily. I’d find the prettiest girl and make her my girlfriend. Then I’d seek out the bully and pick a fight with him. After that, I was OK. I was a pretty good athlete, too, and that helped. I was a good runner and was always the fastest boy in school. I also got good grades. But, for some reason, I’d always get bad marks for behavior.
When my dad got out of the Navy, he didn’t want to return to Asheville. Of all the places we had lived, he liked Corpus Christi the best. He had met some people there who had an electronics business, and he became a partner there as I moved on to seventh grade.
Having not been with my dad for a couple of years, of course, I was excited to see him. He could be fun, but he was also very strict. As a kid, when we went out to dinner, we didn’t go to restaurants. We went to someone’s house. And when we went, if I didn’t get a compliment on my manners, when we got home, I’d get a whipping with a switch from the yard. I didn’t care. I thought all kids got that. But I’ll tell you this: I developed some really good manners. And when we went out to dinner, it would take me only about 30 seconds to get my first compliment.
All strictness aside, my dad built us a sailboat and taught me how to sail. It was slow as hell, but you could run it into the rocks and it would still be fine. Things seemed pretty good at home, I thought—that is, until my parents got divorced. You see, my dad was hard to live with. He was one of those people for whom the cans of food had to be lined up on the shelves in a particular way. And there was a meal plan for every day of the week. We weren’t Catholic, but we went to church and always ate fish on Fridays. Of course, we couldn’t drink milk with fish; to my dad, that was “poisonous.” And I remember having liver a lot. My mom would cook it for about a day, and the leftovers, if not eaten, could be used to resole shoes.
After my parents got divorced, I started to rebel. My mom married a man who was an owner of a large department store in Corpus Christi. He was a nice guy, very well educated, and he and my mom traveled a lot. My stepdad had an uncle who was a chief engineer for Frank Lloyd Wright, so he built us a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the water. It was a beautiful home, and my mom entertained there a lot. But I ended up estranged from my mom and her new husband. Consequently, I spent summers with my dad, who was despondent about the divorce, and he ended up selling his interest in the electronics company in Corpus Christi and became a commercial snapper fisherman. So, we would go to the snapper banks and fish, and I never worked so hard in my life. But I learned a lot about boats, like how to run and take care of them.
In junior high school, I ran track and, as a senior, I was Texas State Champion in a couple of events. In fact, our team won the state championship. As a result, six Division I track scholarships were on the table for me. I entered college in the fall of 1951, and my first stop was Lousiana State University (LSU). I chose LSU because I thought it would be fun to spend some time in New Orleans. I did well in my classes but was always in trouble about something.
One day, I had an altercation with the resident assistant in the dormitory and the folks at LSU decided that I was “incompatible with dormitory life.” But they had some rooms at the university’s stadium, all concrete, which were built for veterans returning from the Korean War. My feelings were hurt by my sudden change of accommodations and, after just one semester at LSU, I called the track coach at Texas Christian University (TCU), who had also offered me a scholarship. “Is that offer still good?” I asked. He said “Yes.” And I told him the whole story of why I wanted to leave LSU, after which he said, “Well, your grades are fine. That will get you into TCU. And I’ll get you that scholarship. But, I don’t want anyone looking into all the stuff you told me about your days at LSU.” So, he told me to apply to the TCU School of Ministry. “You don’t have to stay there, but as a prospective ministry student, they’ll never check your background.” So, I transferred from LSU to TCU and, ultimately, became a speech and English major.
TCU turned out to be great but, in my first year there, once again, I got into trouble. I was, of course, on the track team and, one day, I borrowed the starter’s pistol. A friend of mine had an old Plymouth with a running board, and we went downtown to Fort Worth where the movie “House of Wax” was playing in 3D. People were lined up outside the theatre. Next door was an ice cream shop, and I went in and bought a cone, then started walking down the street, past this long line of people. I wore a hat and a big coat—with a plastic bag attached underneath, filled with ketchup and water. As my friends drove past me in the car, one of them, who was standing on the running board with the starter’s pistol, “shot” me. I fell onto the street and people started screaming and diving under cars. My friends pulled up, grabbed me, threw my body into the car, and roared off. It was the greatest stunt we’d ever pulled.
But about 4 a.m., I was asleep in my dormitory when someone began banging on the door. My roommate, a ministry student, was startled, having had nothing to do with our prank. Sure enough, it was the police. Somehow, they got the license plate number and tracked down my friend who owned the Plymouth at TCU. When they got to his room, they said, “You’re under arrest for murder.” He said, “But it was just a joke. I’ll take you to the victim,” and he did. We were all dragged to the police station, and the chief was furious. They had put out blockades around the city and everything.
The next morning, the president of TCU awoke to The Star Telegram screaming out the headline, “Ice Cream Murder Case Starring Four from TCU.” Of course, we were called to his office—and summarily expelled. But we were all on scholarship: me for track and my three buddies for football. And remember, this was Texas. They were not going to be able to dump three starting football players over college hijinks. And they couldn’t just expel me. How would they explain that? So, we all were reinstated, and I had the distinction of making the Dean’s List and the Disciplinary Probation List for six consecutive semesters—a record that, I don’t think, will ever be broken.
Just before my sophomore year, I reported to campus early because I had to start working out for track, and I got to know a girl named Sally, who had also arrived early, having been kicked out of a school in Missouri. Back then, men did not dare enter a girl’s dormitory. You went to the lobby and the housemother would call upstairs for the girl to come down. If everything seemed kosher, she would be signed out.
Sally had a room on the first floor of her dorm and I decided to dispense with formailities and climb in her window to meet her. Sally wasn’t there. But her new roomate, Elin, was, unpacking. “Who are you?” Elin asked. “Where’s Sally?” I asked. She said, “I don’t know. I haven’t met her yet.” Then I asked, “Well, what’s your name?” and she told me. I said, “Do you want to go and have a Coke, or something?” Well, one year later, Elin and I were married. Nine months and 10 days after that, in 1954, we had our first child, a boy. And we’ve been married ever since, for 66 years.
Just before my senior year at TCU, my track coach called me in on the day that we were to vote on who would be team captain. I was sure that it would be me because I was the top runner at the school. But to my surprise, coach said, “Jim, I know that you’re expecting to be team captain.” “Yes, sir,” I responded. “But I don’t want you to run for it. I want you to nominate Bill Taylor.” “Why?” I asked, to which he responded, “Bill is a walk-on. He had no scholarship. He never won a race. He just wanted to be on the track team, and he’s worked harder than anybody. While he’s still not a good runner, he’s become the very best he can be, and I want people to recognize the importance of that. You’ve been a great runner, Jim. You have the talent, and you could have been twice as good as you are if you hadn’t spent so much energy playing around. You did not become the very best you could be. My job is not just to coach, but to help you guys in life, too.”
“You have the talent, and you could have been twice as good as you are if you hadn’t spent so much energy playing around. You did not become the very best you could be. My job is not just to coach, but to help you guys in life, too.” —Jim Roddey’s college track coach
In 1955, I graduated from TCU and, two weeks later, I was in the Marine Corps. I had been through a program called the Platoon Leaders Class. In the summers, I went to boot camps around the country, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant, which wouldn’t be confirmed until I finished basic training. So, I reported in and quickly learned what it meant to be the very best you could be. You shape up, or you ship out. Going into the Marines was the best thing that could have happened to me. For once, I had a place where I couldn’t goof off.
In the service, I was on active duty for three years, and spent nine months of that in the Mediterranean, where we did some very interesting things. One time, an airplane in the Sixth Fleet was on a reconnaissance mission over Bulgaria in 1956 when it flamed-out and went down, but the Marine pilots ejected. I was on a submarine at the time, with a reconnaissance team, and we were picked up, taken to an aircraft carrier, put on a helicopter and flown to the Greek border where we met with a Greek smuggler who showed us how to cross the Bulgarian border. We went in, undetected, and found our pilots. One had a broken leg; the other, a broken collar bone; and we brought them out. Several years later, I was in the Marine Reserve, a captain now commanding a company. We were in the Sierra Nevada Mountains going through Mountain Leadership Cold Weather Survival and Escape Training. One day, a Marine major came over to me and said, “Captain, is your name Roddey?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “I met you once before.” I asked, “Where, sir?” “In Bulgaria. I’m the pilot who had the broken collar bone. You rescued me.” Then he said, “It’s good to see you, but not nearly as good as it was the first time.”
I was a Marine, and proud of it. But I had two kids by then, a son and a daughter. I was away when my daughter was born and, needless to say, Elin was not happy. So, I decided to leave the Corps at the end of my hitch and head back to Corpus Christi. But what would I do?
I got a job at a company leasing property to place billboards. I went into sales and was doing well. I liked the business. I met with farmers one day and bankers the next, and it was a great learning experience. In time, a large, publicly held company named Rollins, Inc. bought the company I was working for and, for Rollins, I started off as branch manager of a small office in Victoria, Texas. Soon, I became manager of Corpus Christi, then regional manager of four offices and, after that, division vice president, headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware. Eventually, I also ran the Radio Division. Rollins then bought Orkin, the pest control company, which had offices in Atlanta. So, I moved there in 1967, and that’s where I first met Ted Turner.
Like me, Ted was in the billboard business, and we started sailing together. His father had committed suicide when Ted was 21, and Ted had to take over his dad’s company. Now, Ted Turner couldn’t manage a snow-cone machine. But he was a genius at business strategy. Unfortunately, he was in trouble and having a rough time borrowing money. So, he went to the president at Rollins to ask for some financing and did not get it. But what my president did was lend me to Ted. The deal was that Ted would name me president of Turner Communications, and I had to commit to returning to Rollins after three years. I guess they figured that I could learn a lot by running a company that was struggling. So, I stayed on the board of one of the Rollins subsidiaries, its Mexico Division, and went off to Turner. I ended up staying for four years, and we took the company public, buying WTBS-TV and hiring all new people. When I went back to Rollins, I was named President of its Media Group—radio, TV, cable, billboards…everything. And soon, the group was spun off as a separate company, and I began looking for acquisitions so we could grow. I was doing really well but, somehow, I was getting restless. I realized that I was never going to be really rich unless I owned a company.
As I was looking for acquisitions for Rollins, I found a company in Pittsburgh that I liked: Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising. I took it to Rollins and they liked the company, too, but they thought it would be too big of an acquisition for them to make at that time, so they passed. Bullish and undaunted, I called a couple of business friends of mine in Atlanta and Savannah and, together, we set out to buy the Pittsburgh company. We put $100,000 at risk for a $13 million acquisition. Then we raised $10 million, but could not get the last $3 million, so the owner said, “Let me see your business plan.” We showed it to him and he said, “I’ll be your partner. I’ll let you have the $3 million, and take that back as a note. You’ll just owe that to me.”
So, we bought the billboard company and moved to Pittsburgh. Elin loved Atlanta and didn’t want to come here, especially in December, but she did and, on January 1, 1979, we closed on the business. I promised Elin that I would grow the company and we’d be in Pittsburgh no more than five years, tops. Well, 41 years later, we’re still here. And the rest is history.
Through the years in Pittsburgh, I got active in the community, doing a lot of things. I chaired the Port Authority, United Way, WQED, PWSA, ALCOSAN, the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and the Three Rivers Regatta. I sat on a lot of boards, too, including the University of Pittsburgh, UPMC, the Allegheny Conference, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Then a fine man named David Matter and I decided to lead the charge to do away with the county’s ridiculous, three-person panel of County Commissioners in favor of a single Chief Executive post, and we were successful.
When I was thinking about running for the Chief Executive position, we conducted a poll and learned that I had 66 percent name recognition, which is amazing for a person who had never held public office. So, I figured, “What the hell?” I really didn’t think I could win, but at least I could get out there and tell my story. Then, all of sudden, the stars aligned. I defeated Larry Dunn in the Republican primary. And Cyril Wecht, the famed Coroner of Allegheny County, beat out Mike Dawida for the Democratic nomination. A consummate and experienced politician, Dawida could probably have beaten me, but I felt that I had a chance against Cyril. After all, he was a polarizing individual. People seemed to either love him or hate him.
On the campaign trail, I debated Cyril 13 times. I got to know him well, and liked him. I thought he was wrong about a lot of the issues, but I admired him because he was smart, fierce, a solid family man, and he loved Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. I won the election, but not by much, and served as the Allegheny County Chief Executive from 2000 to 2004. Later, I was Chairman of the Republican Party in Allegheny County. It was an honor to be elected to office and to lead the GOP.
Today, I’m enjoying my life working for St. Barnabas. I began there as a volunteer 35 years ago. My mom lived there until she was 101. It is a place that truly cares about and cares for its residents. And I continue to work for two reasons: I enjoy what I do, and I have no retirement skills. But make no mistake: My wife, Elin, has enabled me to accomplish everything I’ve done that’s been worthwhile in my life. She raised our children, mostly without my help. I was away from home much of the time while I was in the Marines. Then, for years, I traveled nearly full time for business. During the years I was involved in politics, she put up with me being absent a lot. And she endured 26 moves in our 66 years of marriage. Elin has earned more gratitude than I’ll ever be able to repay. I often tell people that the secret to staying married is “separate bank accounts and a bad memory.” But the real secret for me was choosing the right woman.